From Benign Confirmation Bias to Malignant Trumpian Paranoia

by Neil H. Buchanan

People have an understandable tendency not to want to admit error, which results in unconscious efforts to twist evidence in service of what they think is an established truth.  Psychologists call this "confirmation bias."  This can be relatively harmless, as when people buy a red car and then begin to notice red cars everywhere they look.  It can also be dangerous, as when racists see every crime committed by a black person as proof that minorities are more violent than white people.

This year's political circus has provided a veritable cavalcade of examples of confirmation bias.  A recent example from the editorial board of The New York Times, which I will discuss momentarily, serves as an odd illustration of the relatively benign version of this type of cognitive error.  Donald Trump's entire worldview, on the other hand, provides the most extreme version of how this psychological tendency can become a deadly malignancy.

Over the last week, the Trump campaign has tried to turn the word "deplorables" into a line of attack against Hillary Clinton.  As I discussed earlier this week, that effort has been notably unsuccessful, perhaps because what Clinton said is demonstrably true.  Although Donald Trump and his supporters will surely continue to use that word to rally his base, and the word will probably become one of the things that outlives this campaign (along with "low energy" and a few other memes that political junkies will use knowingly in future conversations), this supposed gaffe by Clinton is proving to have little or no traction.

Nonetheless, the editors of The Times could not resist trying to repurpose that controversy to support an argument about an unrelated issue that they believe is important.

After reporting Clinton's "deplorables" remarks (and then mischaracterizing her later clarification of those remarks), the editors claimed that Clinton's words had done "real damage" to her campaign, because she had wooed one group of voters by "writing off" another group.

Although that is not true, what was notable was the editors' belief that Clinton's supposed error was in trying to kiss up to wealthy donors.  She delivered her remarks at a high-dollar fundraiser, and the editors claimed that Clinton was "reading some members of her elite audience, and reflecting their feelings back to them, and perhaps revealing her own."

In other words, the claim is that this was a revelatory moment made possible only because Clinton was speaking to a group of wealthy people like herself who thrilled to hear her denigrate people who are not like them.  Adding a literary gloss, they added: "This is what happens when candidates spend so much time in what F. Scott Fitzgerald called 'the consoling proximity of millionaires.'"

But that is not what was happening at all.  Unlike Mitt Romney's off-the-record remarks to wealthy donors in 2012, Clinton was not saying anything new or different to this particular audience.  Moreover, there was nothing about the wealth of the people in her audience that explains her choice of words.  She could just as easily have been speaking to any audience, sympathetic or otherwise.

In fact, Clinton's remarks would have been even more effective at a union hall or a Labor Day picnic, because she was saying that she and other Democrats need to understand the difference between two groups of people: those who thrill to Trump's open appeals to bigotry and therefore reject Democrats, and people who are voting for him out of an understandable desire to seek answers to seemingly intractable problems.

To be clear, I agree with the larger point that the editors of The Times were making, which is that the influence of big money distorts America's political process.  But they were simply wrong to leap to the conclusion that Clinton made her "deplorables" remarks where and when she did because she was cozying up to rich donors.

If one wants to criticize fundraising practices, including Clinton's, there are plenty of legitimate concerns that should be discussed.  But this example simply does not make that point.  Still, at least the broader point is true that money has far too much impact on politics.

As I noted above, everyone has a tendency to look for examples to support what they already believe.  But some people are more likely than others to view evidence through a particular lens and then announce that their position has been proved yet again.  And no one has a more particularized view of the world (or a more peculiar one) than Donald Trump.

Trump's campaign is unashamedly built on conspiracy theories and paranoia.  Perhaps his most damaging claim is that the only way that he can lose the election is if it is stolen from him, a claim that all but begs his supporters to forcefully reject the legitimacy of a Clinton victory (emphasis on "force").  But even on less apocalyptic issues, Trump's default mode seems to be to describe all unwelcome facts as the result of cheating by his opponents.

For example, Trump has been claiming for months that the economy is much worse than it is, in part by saying that the government's statistical agencies are simply lying to make the Obama Administration look good.  This is utterly false, but for people who see conspiracies everywhere, there is no evidence that will convince them that the "elites" are not gathering behind closed doors to prevent Trump's rise.

To be sure, I have no doubt that many powerful politicians are in fact gathering together frequently to develop strategies to make Trump lose the election.  Many of those politicians are Republicans, because even they understand how damaging a Trump presidency would be to the nation and the world.  And of course they will meet in private, because it would be silly for, say, Mitt Romney and other Never-Trump Republicans to discuss strategy in a YouTube video.

Trump's paranoia, however, is different and more virulent than the simple belief that his opponents are devising ways to oppose him.  The operative assumption in Trump's worldview is not merely that people with anti-Trump opinions are talking with each other (just as Trump talks with his favorite advisor, himself).  Trump is saying that government employees are not doing their jobs correctly because they are trying to rig the world against Trump.

The most recent example of this is Trump's attack on the nation's central bank, the Federal Reserve (the Fed).  Like many of the most conservative Republicans, Trump thinks (based on neither plausible evidence nor coherent theory) that interest rates should be higher than they have been since the Great Recession.

Actually, that might not be an accurate description of what Trump thinks.  As is the case on so many issues, Trump cannot decide what he thinks, so he contradicts himself again and again.  He has gone on the record this year as saying that interest rates should stay low: "And I must be honest, I’m a low-interest-rate person."  (It ought to send up a red flag that Trump sometimes feels the need to say that he is being honest, but that subject must await another day.)  Now, however, he says the exact opposite, which will not stop him from changing his mind again tomorrow.

But it is not just that Trump has decided that rates are too low.  He now says that the Fed is keeping rates down because President Obama wants interest rates to be low.  Trump's headline-worthy line is that Obama "wants to go out, he wants to play golf for the rest of his life, and he doesn’t care what’s going to happen after January."

To fill in the gaps of what Trump is most likely trying to say, many conservatives (including supposedly responsible congressional leaders) have been accusing the Fed for years of keeping rates artificially low, so low that there will surely be a spasm of hyperinflation any day now.  Of course, the pressing issue for the last seven years has actually been whether the economy will spin into a deflationary spiral, as years of all-but-zero interest rates have been accompanied by extremely low inflation.

Even if Trump is now channeling that recognizable line of thought, therefore, he is endorsing a fully discredited one.  But what makes this whole episode so Trumpian is that he cannot stop himself from taking a disagreement over policy and turning it into a conspiracy theory.  The Fed is not merely making a mistake, as far as Trump is concerned.  It is doing so to help the Democrats.  Everything is politics all the way down.

Trump leaves no ambiguity about his current view (although that will not stop him from simply denying all of this at his whim): "I think the Fed is totally being controlled politically. ...  I really believe if it was a political decision or the right decision, they’re going to go with the political decision every time."  Trump also personalizes his ire, complaining that Fed chair Janet Yellen "is obviously political, and she’s doing what Obama wants her to do."

This is dangerous territory.  There is no evidence that Yellen is doing Obama's bidding.  (But that is what makes a good conspiracy, right?  The same people who are hiding the fact that man never landed on the moon are able to erase all evidence of the Obama-Yellen pact.)  Moreover, the Fed's chair is not a dictator.  There are twelve voting members of the rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee, many of whom are Republicans and many of whom have no loyalty to Yellen.  It is an open process with an extensive paper trail, not a cabal of secretive bankers pulling strings for Obama.

Trump is, moreover, merely repeating anti-Fed rhetoric that the extreme right has been pushing for years.  Failed Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul, who still serves in the U.S. Senate, has been pushing an "audit the Fed" movement that truly would politicize the Fed.  Rather than having the Fed make decisions on the basis of evidence and logic, they would intimidate the Fed and try to force it to change monetary policy to fit their evidence-free policy agenda.

In a co-authored article to be published soon in Cornell Law Review, Professor Dorf and I explain why politicizing the Fed would be a terrible idea.  In addition to arguments regarding the Fed's essential role as a bulwark against political self-dealing, we also note that the Fed's independence actually makes it possible for Congress to enact tax and spending policies without worrying about having those policies undermined by the Fed.

Again, however, none of that matters to Trump.  Something is happening that he does not like, in this case economic policies that prevent economic catastrophe and thus make it more likely that he will lose to Clinton in November.  Trump's gut reaction is to say that the Fed, Obama, and Clinton (and probably the Pope, the Illuminati, Queen Elizabeth, and the people who put fluoride in the water) are in cahoots.

There is obviously no equivalence between the isolated (though regrettable) sloppiness of The Times editors' confirmation bias and Trump's thoroughgoing belief that the world is filled with evil forces arrayed against him.  Rather than saying that they are the same thing, I am saying that the difference in degree is so extreme as to make it ever more obvious that Trump is operating on his own plane of existence.

Everything that Trump sees proves to his satisfaction what he already knew.  But because what Trump thinks he knows changes from moment to moment, we cannot even use his conspiracy-addled tendencies to predict what he will say and do next.  We do know, however, that he will not be constrained by reality.